Aliens among us: Charlie Stross on the corporate invasion

Paul Raven @ 13-12-2010

More challenging ideas from Chateau Stross (or should that be Schloss Stross?) – he’s not the first to frame the corporation as a non-human entity with an alarming degree of power and control over human affairs, but – given the current economic and political climate – it’s a conversation worth revisiting.

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don’t bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.

In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

The comment thread is fantastic reading too, but very long; set aside an hour or so to really dig into it properly.

Here’s a counterpoint from the NYT‘s Paul Krugman:

These days, we’re living in the world of the imperial, very self-interested individual; the man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the man in the very expensive Armani suit. Look at the protagonists in the global financial meltdown, and you won’t see faceless corporations subverting individual will; you’ll see avaricious individuals exploiting corporate forms to enrich themselves, often bringing the corporations down in the process. Lehman, AIG, Anglo-Irish, etc. were not cases of immortal hive-minds at work; they were cases of kleptocrats run wild.

And when it comes to the subversion of the political process — yes, there are faceless corporations in the mix, but the really dastardly players have names and large individual fortunes; Koch brothers, anyone?

I find myself somewhat on the fence here, principally because I’m painfully aware that I know enough about economics to know that I don’t know enough about economics. I’m not sure that the corporation as a concept is inherently bad, but I’m very sure that the current protectionist set-up is a root cause of many of our current problems, at both the global and local scales.

What do you think?

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7 Responses to “Aliens among us: Charlie Stross on the corporate invasion”

  1. Ian Sales says:

    Nothing especially new about this, I’d have thought: cf the South Sea Bubble, John Company…

  2. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    I think they’re both right. While I wouldn’t quite go with the alien mind analogy, there are some real problems with corporations as currently set up. One, the legal fiction that they’re persons, with virtually the same rights as individuals, was a bad mistake. (Ironically, in the U.S., courts interpreted civil rights laws intended to give African Americans full citizenship after the Civil War to give corporations broad rights.) Two, most human beings will go along with the group, particularly if it’s in their economic interest. Individual employees in corporations often disagree with where the company is going, but they don’t take any actions to change it, because they want to fit in and because it might cost them their jobs.

    OTOH, the kleptocrats cited by Krugman are very much with us, and they certainly had a lot to do with the global economic meltdown. I think — and I believe Krugman acknowledges — that they were able to accumulate the power and money to do that in part because of corporate form and the fact that others within the corporation weren’t going to challenge them, due to structure. (Damn, here I am, making an argument about the importance of well-designed structures in human interactions — something I learned doing legal work for food co-ops back many years ago. I was right then and I’m still right: the underlying structure is critical.)

    And people like the Koch Brothers are truly scary, the more so because — unlike the vampires in Buffy — they don’t see themselves as evil. Some of the kleptocrats Krugman cites are probably indifferent to any analysis of an action except whether it makes them money, but others are motivated by a belief that the world should be run their way.

    Hmm. A consensus thesis emerges: We have a corporate structure that both gets most of us to go along to get along and provides a protected platform for kleptocrats motivated by either greed or ideology to take actions that can harm not just the companies, but all of us.

    That’s a lot scarier than vampires, if you ask me.

  3. Rick York says:

    I don’t think the two viewpoints are that contrary. One of the reasons these thieves get away with their larceny is that the corporate personhood mythology protects them.

  4. Wintermute says:

    I have to go with Krugman on this one. The corporation-as-organism trope sounds nice and sensawunderish in cyberpunk novels and manifestos, and there is a certain trend in intellectual circles (specially sci-fi)to perceive everything through the lens of Darwinian evolution. But ultimately I feel it’s become far too prevalent in the milieu, and currently serves the Masters of The Universe better than it serves the average person.

    Corporations do compete in a very loose sense, the way that nations “compete” and have “wills” and “feel pain”. On the surface, you could say the US “organism” of its own volition “competed” with Iraq through military conflict. But on closer inspection we can see that there were specific human actors manipulating the nation and its military for their own “goals”: going to war on false premises, padding their pockets with contracts, protecting their oil interests, we all know the deal. I doubt many would say that the US as a whole is better off for having gone to war in Iraq, having suffered the “pain” of all those trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in losses. And its these individual war profiteers who use their “enormous media reach” to distract the populace not from the survival of the “nation organism”, but rather to keep people believing in the fantasy of nation organisms, in “good ‘ol USA kickin ass” and apple pie, to distract people from the real and far more complicated truth which is that they are just using the nation facade for their own ends.

    Similarly, declaring that the corporation has a “will” to pursue “goals”, while avoiding “pain”, etc. helps the immorally rich banksters and moguls and the like distract us from the truth that the corporations and banks are merely puppets, tools used by the rich to accelerate wealth into their hands. And the puppetmasters deliberately destroy their disposable money-crowbars in the process, as we’ve seen with the blow up of all the pinata banks, and pinata tech-boom corporations, and every other boom and bust cycle of the great global capitalism bubble machine. But the individual human organisms who committed the colossal amounts of fraud, theft and generally nose-dived the world into the ground for their benefit can hide behind, “It’s not my fault, it was the corporation/bank! I was co-opted by it into its will along with everyone else and it made me do things to meet its goals!” Its a cardboard scapegoat for shifting blame, not an intelligent agent.

    That said, there are things that do need to be changed with the way corporations are set up. But I think a better metaphor than an evolutionarily-driven organism might be a machine, like an automobile. The pistons transmission and brakes all work together to make the car drive, but it is ultimately humans who decide how and where to drive it; whether to use it responsibly to get from point A to point B faster, or to use it to make a getaway robbing a bank, or to take a joy ride and total the car into a telephone pole. And if the car does get totaled, it’s not the car who should be blamed but the driver who should go to prison for drunk/malicious driving.

  5. Buffalo says:

    I get what Wintermute is saying: corporations do seem more like machines than beings with independent thought. Probably that’s why it is so easy for intelligent, well placed individuals to take advantage of them and why they’re so hard to deal with. It is not like you can just throw a massive company like WalMart or CocaCola in the recycle bin if you’re tired of the thing. Removing corporations causes so much havoc that,as we’ve seen lately with the Wall Street crisis, it is rarely done and not without serious repercussions. An analogy that comes to mind for me is cancer chemotherapy for an advanced case. The treatment can kill you.
    I kind of think that this whole concept points to the undeniable fact of the failure of education and culture to properly train individuals how to ethically work in corporate environments. If there was any really serious support for responsible behavior in the general populace this kind of nightmare juggernaut would be less–I hope–less likely. Maybe I’m too naive? What we seem to have instead, at least for some, is an environment where folks try to take advantage regardless of consequences (esp to others) and attempt to avoid the adverse ones themselves as much as possible.

  6. gmoke says:

    Take a look at the “sovereign citizen” idea in the USA. The ultimate goal is to make corporations sovereign citizens and the only citizens that count. Along those lines, one of the new Republican Tea Party Congresscritters has appointed a Koch Industries lobbyist and lawyer as his chief of staff. Koch Bros funded Tea Party Republicans with something like $100 million this election cycle and now they “own” a number of Congresscritters and Senaturds.

    When corporations were first formed, they were chartered for a specific time period and then their charters were reviewed before being renewed. If you look closely, you will see that the American Revolution was as much against the East India Company as the British Crown.

  7. Your Obedient Serpent says:

    I’ve been muttering that corporations are an invasive species whose optimal conditions are not those of individual H. sapiens for YEARS now. Glad I’m not the only one who sees it.